One of the most difficult changes about becoming vegan has been dealing with the dairy withdrawal… Well, in a manner of speaking. Dairy actually has addictive qualities. Yup. Cheese is a drug. Don’t believe me? You might want to read The Cheese Trap by Dr. Neal Barnard. For a quick lowdown, check out this Forbes article. Essentially, the protein in dairy, called casein, binds to the brain in the same way that opiates like morphine and heroin do. You get your cheese pleasure rush, and then crave more.
I’ll admit to you that I have broken my vegan diet during this journey, and the temptation has always been dairy. I have come to realize there is more pulling me toward dairy than just habit and chemical compulsion (as if that weren’t enough), which I will discuss in a later blog post. It has been very important for me, therefore, to find delicious and cruelty-free substitutes for my dairy temptations. I’ve been experimenting with vegan cheese recipes since before I took my vegan plunge, and I am happy to say that I’ve found some appetizing and easy substitutes!
So much was my excitement at finding convincing and delicious vegan cheese recipes, that I knew I had to invite my vegetarian, cheese-loving friend to a VEGAN CHEESE PARTY to see if she would be as thrilled as I was! I am happy to announce, it was a HIT!
The very first “cheese” I ever learned to make came from Angela Liddon’s Oh She Glows: All-Purpose Cheese Dip. There have been many other vegan chefs to approximate this recipe, each with their own tweaks. I’ve made some changes, myself, here and there, but this was the first recipe that made me realize there could be life after dairy.
In my household, we’ve known it as the nacho cheese dip, and it is always paired with organic corn tortilla chips. Oh so good. It’s thick and liquid, with that nutty, yeasty cheese flavour and acidic bite. It might even fool omnivores…
Once I was comfortable enough with this basic recipe, I started thinking about what other cheese could be crafted from plants, and I was encouraged to discover a whole world of possibilities! Each cheese recipe tends to have similar components, which makes experimentation so exciting and rewarding.
Basic Components of Vegan Cheese Recipes
- Cashews/ another soft seed or nut — OR — no nuts and tapioca starch with xantham gum
- Nutritional yeast (essential)
- Thickener such as carrageenan or agar (omit for liquid cheeses)
- Oil/fat such as refined coconut oil or vegan butter
- Acid flavour such as lemon juice, or vinegar, or citric acid
- Seasoning such as garlic, onion powder, or smoke
Different recipes will suggest different ratios or ingredient preferences, but they are all fairly similar. Which means that once you have become familiar with the composition and process, you can easily concoct your own favourite recipes!
To be totally upfront, I will acknowledge that it if you are just starting your vegan journey, or are a strictly junk food vegan, you may look at that list and feel totally confounded… That’s totally FAIR!
As a non-vegan, there was probably no reason for you to have any of these items in your cupboard. Instead, you likely had butter, cream, cheese, egg, etc. Ingredients like the above are the vegan tools to create the animal by-products most of us have known all our life. I will give you a quick explanation of the above ingredients below: but first, another vegan cheese picture!!
Vegan Cheese Ingredients Explained
- Nutritional yeast: a deactivated yeast that comes in small or large yellow flakes. It’s loaded with all the vitamin B you could need (almost). It is used in vegan recipes to add a cheese-like flavour. It has a nutty, yeasty flavour/smell. You may not love it initially, but it will surely become your best friend.
- Tapioca starch: a starch carbohydrate that comes in powder form. It has many uses in typical baking. In vegan cooking, it provides a “stretchy” effect when mixed with liquid. If you want a stringy kind of vegan cheese, up the dose of tapioca starch (and apply heat).
- Xantham gum: a polysaccharide in fine powder. It is often used in gluten-free baking and vegan cooking because it helps to bind ingredients. If you’re looking for a vegan cheese with a consistent texture, add xantham gum. Just be aware, it gets very slimy when wet.
- Carrageenan: a polysaccharide extracted from red seaweed. It is used as a vegan alternative to gelatin for its gelling and thickening effects. For solid vegan cheeses, you’ll want to add carrageenan powder or agar. Some people may have problems digesting carrageenan — which is why I usually opt for agar.
- Agar powder/flakes (or agar agar): a polysaccharide extracted from red algae. Like, carrageenan, it is used as a vegan alternative to gelatin because of its gelling properties. You can use either agar or carrageenan in recipes that call for either, but when using agar in cheese recipes that call for carrageenan, increase the dose of agar by half.
- Cashews/nuts/seeds: used in vegan cheese recipes to replicate the soft, yet thick and “milky” flavour base. Most recipes will call for cashews as the base because they are so easy to work with (just soak to soften, and blend!), and because the flavour is close to dairy. However, you can opt for other nuts such as macadamias or almonds, or seeds like sunflower or hemp. If you want to avoid legumes, then use tapioca starch and xantham gum.
- Fats/(coconut) oil/vegan butter: used in vegan cheese recipes as a base to mimic the structure and nutritional components of dairy cheese. You can use your choice of fat. Typically, recipes will call for refined coconut oil, but vegan butter works as well (and I prefer it). Whatever fat/oil you use, it is best if it can approach a solid form. If using coconut oil, make sure it is refined so that you don’t get the coconut taste and fragrance.
- Acid/vinegar/lemon juice: used in vegan cheese to produce the “sharp” flavour of most cheeses. Depending on what flavour profile you’re aiming for, you will use more or less acidic flavouring. Most recipes will call for lemon juice and/or apple cider vinegar. If you want a very biting flavour, add a bit of powdered citric acid, as well.
- Salt & seasonings: used in vegan cheese to refine the cheese flavour. You can make a real difference in flavour with your seasoning. For more savoury vegan cheeses, increase the salt or add miso paste (helps to increase the umami flavour). Garlic and onion powder also make a big difference in flavouring. If you are looking for a sweeter cheese, like mozzarella, go for less salt, apple cider vinegar (not lemon juice), and only a touch of garlic powder. For a smokey flavour, add some smoked paprika or liquid smoke (not the healthiest choice).
My Vegan Cheese Choices
What you see here is vegan nacho cheese, mozzarella – spinach dip, smoked gouda cheese log, and sharp cheddar cheese ball. All were DELICIOUS!
In the interests of full disclosure, I feel I must tell you that my choice to make “cheese balls” came from the failure of my cheese to cure properly. They came out softer than usual, so in order to help keep them together, I coated them with pecans. No harm; no foul.
I will be sharing the individual recipes in followup blogs, so keep your eyes peeled!
On Store-Bought Vegan Cheese
When I first went vegan, I stocked up on all the vegan cheeses in my grocery store, and almost immediately felt defeated. While having easy commercial alternatives to dairy is SO very important to make veganism more accessible and attainable, most commercial vegan cheeses just don’t hit the spot. I feel it’s important to note this to keep new vegans from losing hope. Homemade vegan cheese is delicious. Really. It won’t be exactly like the dairy version, but it is its own unique form that is just as delicious. The only thing missing is the opiate high…